Thai Cinema Made New

The work of Asian Cinematographer Apichatpong Weerasethakul proved unconventionably surprising

A still from Syndromes and a Century (2006) by Thai filmmaker AW | Photo: Filmmuseum Wien

Syndromes and a Century

A still from Syndromes and a Century (2006) by Thai filmmaker AW | Photo: Filmmuseum Wien

As I write, a flood of international news pours in about the wounded and deaths from the Thai protests on the streets around the Government House in Bangkok. Anxious and disheartened, my mind flashes back to a quiet dinner in Vienna over Pasta mit Meeresfrüchten with award-winning filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who spontaneously decided we meet – sandwiched in between introducing his films and the Q&A that followed – to discuss his potential role in a U.N. Industrial Development Organization project to support filmmakers in the Caribbean.

It was the third day of the retrospective on his films at the Austrian Film Museum in early April, where the anthology, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, had just been launched. It was pouring rain, so we ran to l‘Asino chi Ride (the Laughing Donkey), just around the corner of the Filmmuseum.

Apichatpong told me that he considers filmmaking as a collaborative project, in contrast to the American/European experimental or auteur model of going at it alone.

“I provide a framework, like an empty shell, and anything can be done,” he said. “Others can fill in the details” during production and while viewing his work. He finds it most satisfying to allow rural people to play “stars”, so he recounted a funny story about how an Italian financier was ready to kill him for not keeping to the original script. Indeed, except for The Adventure of Iron Pussy, which he co-directed with a gay performance artist, all of his films are ascribed to him in the credits as “conceived by.”

Then our conversation turned to his struggles with censorship in Thailand, and he admitted how frustrated he was with politics. In August 2007, he participated in a roundtable of industry practitioners and government officials on the country’s New Film and Video Act to replace an earlier 1930 law. He had been enthusiastic, as the new law was expected to mean “new hope for freedom of artistic expression” and also because only a few months before, he had been requested to cut “just four scenes” from his latest and fourth full-length film Syndromes and a Century.

That incident had convinced him, as he later wrote in The Folly and Future of Thai Cinema Under Military Dictatorship, ‘…that the fate of Thai cinema would be irrevocably doomed if the power to censor remained with the police.’ The current political conflicts in Bangkok serve as a suitable counterpoint to the focus on the filmmaker’s oeuvre, a complex world of moving images that have spurred an international discourse and a cultural clash within Thailand itself.  In his preface to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Volume 12 in the Austrian Film Museum’s series on avant-garde film practitioners, museum director Alexander Horwath recalled his own first encounter nine years ago “… stumbling out of a screening…” of the filmmaker’s first feature, Mysterious Objects at Noon, at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

‘I was aware that I had lucked into one of the most cherished moments in the (dream) life of any cinephile: the sudden unexpected discovery of a major filmmaker,’ Horwath wrote. At the opening of the retrospective, he presented the book proudly declaring that, there’s so much more to know about the world of Apichatpong: four more features and thirty-three more pieces, including installations, short films and videos. All of these are described in the Filmmuseum’s new collection, a compendium of texts and visual/graphic documents, published in collaboration with Synema, an association for film and media in Vienna.

Not yet 40, Apichatpong already has a remarkable CV behind him. Armed with an architecture degree from Thailand, he went on to The Art Institute of Chicago for his training as visual artist and filmmaker. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 and Un Certain Regard in 2002 for innovative work by young filmmakers, there is much to learn from him. For one thing, there’s much more to Asia than acrobatic ghosts kung-fu-ing in films from Hongkong or song-and-dance love scenes in Bollywood’s safe jungles to feed the West’s secured tastes in cineplexes.

The artist’s essay Ghosts in the Darkness takes us back to his first encounters with cinema in Khon Kaen where he grew up and when it was still a jungle – to how the Thai film industry had evolved, as well as to the sources of his initial influences.

‘I think this is one of the reasons I make films,’ he wrote. ‘My personal memories are always interwoven with those from other sources… It was hard then to remember clearly, so I made films without knowing how true they really were. It was like waking the dead and giving them a new soul, making them walk once more.’

Certainly, there’s a lot more to the sensual appetites of Thai-ness than Tom Yum Gai or entrees of stripped-breasts on banana leaves and lemon grass. Way beyond such clichés and gourmet encounters, Apichatpong’s spirit suffuses the book through the overlapping voices of those who have come to terms with his works. The book demonstrates that it is precisely this delicate balancing act of straddling the spiritual and the natural, which empower the artist. Swinton describes watching Tropical Malady in Cannes, as the scene cuts to “a mysterious creature” rambling through the nocturnal forest. ‘I felt myself blush, caught, indecent,’ she wrote. ‘How could it be that falling in love itself could be purposefully unspooling in its raw, natural order in front of this civilised audience? For isn’t that what the first steps towards the fever of love are exactly… heart in your throat and sweat prickling up everywhere?’

In his essay, The Strange Story of a Strange Beast, world-renowned academician Benedict Anderson asks himself why this young Thai has become ‘…in my old age, my favourite living film director in the world.’ Anderson, who is Chinese born and an Irish citizen, re-constructed the concept “nation” as an “imagined community,” ideas that he applies to Apichatpong whose work puzzles him as to why it is largely unknown in Thailand. How is it possible, Anderson questions, that among over a hundred professors and students at Thammasat University in Bangkok, only eight or nine had seen the award-winning Tropical Malady?

In fact, Malady is especially “difficult” for today’s Thai middle class, Anderson argues, because they are invisible within it – something new to them – ‘…a form that is “below them” as well as alien to their experience.’ Thai intellectuals are bound by a nationalist investment, the scholar continues, they want their films “getting there” achieving both world-class status and being Thai. Unlike Cannes juror Quentin Tarantino – who reportedly said, “It is wonderful and I don’t understand it” – Thais find themselves in a dilemma between wishing to join the global admiration and being unable to admit that they “do not understand it.” Bangkok intellectuals insist that Malady is “highly abstract and/or surreal” and thus “unsuitable” for the country’s hinterland.

As the first English-language book on Apichatpong, the comprehensive tome is worth dipping into, even if only from time to time, as a corridor of filmic perception and for the breadth of information, the incisive mind and the generosity of spirit displayed by the book’s editor, James Quandt, considered one of the foremost film critics in North America today. In one of Quandt’s three interviews, he asks Apichatpong, whether we should just respect the mystery of the films and stop trying to analyze them. The filmmaker reiterated his response during our meeting: “I find every interpretation refreshing… helps me to think about my next film.”


Apichatpong WeerasethakulApichatpong Weerasethakul

James Quandt, ed. With contributions by

Benedict Anderson, Mark Cousins, Karen Newman, Tony Rayns, Kong Rithdee und Tilda Swinton.

Filmmuseum-Synema Publications Vienna 2009

In English

ISBN 978-3-901644-31-3


See also: Filmmaker honored in Vienna wins Palme D’Or

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